In the New York Sun, Andrew Wolf explains E.D. Hirsch’s argument for why children need to know things in order to understand what they read. Schools teach reading strategies, such as predicting what will come next, but spend little time teaching vocabulary or basic knowledge.
“Domain knowledge” is the threshold level of knowledge needed to understand a topic. Mr. Hirsch uses the example of a newspaper article on baseball. If you know nothing of the game, you can’t comprehend a sentence such as: “Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.” The more domain knowledge acquired, the easier it becomes to read and understand a wider variety of material.
The central thesis of Mr. Hirsch’s philosophy is that in today’s schools, the teaching of the kind of specific knowledge you need to become a fully literate individual is woefully inadequate. The texts and literature used in most American elementary schools are, for the most part, of a trivial nature. There is no shortage of material on topics like pets and sharing, but little on history, geography, and science.
Wolf observes that the head of the American Federation of Teachers is on Hirsch’s Core Knowledge board, and the union publication, American Educator, is providing a forum for these ideas.